Lauren Gustafson

Saving Shakespeare, word by word

Ashland's daring and delightful "The Book of Will" tells the tale of the Bard's company rescuing his plays (and themselves) after his death

ASHLAND — It’s no secret that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival loves Shakespeare’s plays. The company was created 83 years ago to perform his works, and has been doing so ever since. In the past decade, though, it’s also demonstrated a passion for stories about the most famous playwright who’s ever lived. In 2009 the festival staged the world premiere of Bill Cain’s Equivocation; then the movie-turned-play Shakespeare in Love last season; and now popular playwright Lauren Gunderson’s The Book of Will — as much a tribute to the players who loved the Bard as a tribute to the Bard himself.

This production — one of three that opened in June on the stage of the open-air Allen Elizabethan Theatre, the largest of the festival’s three performance spaces — is perhaps the perfect play for OSF audiences, who geek out on their own love of the Bard and can wholly relate to characters like John Heminges (Jeffrey King), whose wife, Rebecca (Kate Mulligan) tells him, “Most people go to church. You went to the Globe.” And the cast is filled with OSF veterans (plus a couple of newer faces) who have a love of Shakespeare in common with their audiences.

Henry Condell (David Kelly) and John Heminges (Jeffrey King) are pleased by the reaction of Anne Hathaway (Kate Mulligan) to the newly completed folio of her late husband’s plays. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

King, David Kelly, and Kevin Kenerly — with 66 years at OSF among them — bring the last of The King’s Men (the acting company of which Will was a part) to life as The Book of Will opens. It will be King’s Heminges and Kelly’s Henry Condell who do the bulk of the work here. These are the two friends who ensured Will’s words would live on. But Kenerly gets to shine brightest in the opening scene: He portrays Richard Burbage, after all, the head of the King’s Men and the star of Shakespeare’s plays. Burbage is angry about how folks are performing Shakespeare since Will’s death, and he shows off to one young actor in a tavern, giving Kenerly opportunity to perform bits from some of the great plays of the canon. It’s glorious to see Kenerly — who’s played Romeo, Hotspur, Macduff, Orlando, Oberon, and many others — show off his own craft, and Burbage’s.

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